Connecticut’s motor vehicle theft rate dropped by a larger percentage than the national average between 2010 and 2019. Source: DESPP

Car thefts in 2019 were at their lowest rate since the state started collecting data in 1985, according to recent research conducted by the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University. After a peak of 26,254 motor vehicle thefts in 1991, there were 5,964 in 2019, a 77% decrease, compared to a 43% reduction nationwide.

Preliminary data from 2020 show there was an increase in motor vehicle thefts in Connecticut compared to the previous year, mirroring national trends. A National Insurance Crime Bureau report published in January found that motor vehicle thefts rose more than 9% between 2019 and 2020. The researchers hypothesized the uptick could be due to the pandemic, economic downturn, a loss of juvenile outreach programs and public safety budgetary limitations.

“This is not a Connecticut problem. This is not isolated to Connecticut,” said Ken Barone, the project manager at the IMRP.

Plus, Barone added, those preliminary numbers from 2020 are still 3% lower than they were in 2018.

“2019 is really the outlier year, not 2020,” Barone said. “We can really explain and understand the theft rate increase in 2020. More so than we can explain the significant reduction in motor vehicle thefts in 2019.”

Barone presented the research to members of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee Thursday. He told the legislators, police officers and advocates on the virtual hearing that the state should study 2019 so that officials can replicate its success in future years.

“The questions I’m starting to ask are: were there programs put in place? Were there changes made in communities that caused such a significant decrease in 2019, and as a result of the pandemic, did those programs have to go away? Did they have to get put on hold? And did that help to fuel some of the increase in 2020?”

Legislators have passed a series of reforms aimed at helping children ensnared in the criminal legal system. The first was in 2007, where they passed legislation that raised the age at which young people’s criminal cases were automatically sent to the adult justice system — placing the majority of 16- and 17-year-olds into the juvenile system — and gave teachers and school administrators options for dealing with troubled students other than calling the police on them.

Barone noted that motor vehicle thefts increased in Connecticut between 2013 and 2018, fueling concerns that raising the age was responsible for the increase.

Republicans have introduced at least four bills this legislative session dealing with car thefts committed by children. Each measure would attempt to deter kids from stealing cars by increasing the penalties associated with the crime, aiding police and state’s attorneys in investigating and prosecuting auto thefts, or creating a task force to make recommendations to reduce car thefts.

But Barone’s presentation pointed out that motor vehicle theft rates were 19% lower in 2017 compared to 2008. Although motor vehicle thefts increased in Connecticut starting in 2014, that followed a national trend.

“There is no evidence to support a claim that ‘Raise the Age’ laws have caused an increase in motor vehicle thefts here in Connecticut,” said Barone.

Plus, Barone said, minors make up a comparatively small proportion of the people arrested for stealing cars. Between 2010 and 2019, children under age 18 made up 28% of all motor vehicle arrests; on average, between 1992 and 1997, minors made up just under half of all motor vehicle theft arrests.

The data Barone presented also showed that motor vehicle thefts are reported at a higher rate than other crimes, but police make fewer arrests in these cases.

“We only ever solve about 11% of these offenses,” said Barone.

Barone’s presentation detailed what he called “the spoke and wheel trend,” that as motor vehicle thefts have declined in Connecticut’s major cities, they have increased in surrounding suburban communities.

“I think that just goes to show the shifting nature of where the crime is primarily occurring,” said Barone.

And the clearance rates for car thefts in the suburbs are even lower than the rest of the state.

“So the state average is about 11%. And the clearance rate in most of these suburban communities, particularly in central Connecticut, is about 5%,” Barone said. “Increased penalties for these offenses will, again, likely have little or no impact on the overall offense rate, because very few individuals, and in particular very few juveniles, are even arrested for committing these offenses.”

One notable exception: Waterbury. The city and its surrounding communities have seen significant increases in motor vehicle thefts between 2010 and 2019.

There were 424 car thefts in Waterbury in 2010. In 2015, there were 809. The numbers plateaued in later years; in 2019, there were 541 car thefts.

The simplest way to prevent a car from being stolen is by locking it. Barone’s presentation showed that, since 2013, there has been a 93% nationwide increase in motor vehicle thefts where keys were left in the car.

Twelve kids

After Barone’s presentation, Fernando Spagnolo, Waterbury chief of police, responded on behalf of law enforcement. Spagnolo said there were 546 reported car thefts in Waterbury in 2020 and that police recovered 317 cars stolen outside the city and returned to Waterbury. In total, Waterbury police responded to 863 reports of car thefts.

“Our concerns don’t necessarily lie only with the stolen motor vehicle rates,” Spagnolo said, but rather, the “harmful behaviors” after the cars are stolen.

Spagnolo said police have identified 48 youths who have repeatedly stolen cars. Officers reached out to the minors through community programs in an attempt to help them stay out of the justice system.

But, Spagnolo said, there are 12 children that police have been “unable to reach.”

The average age of those 12 youths is 15. They have been arrested for auto theft about eight times between the end of 2017 and 2020. During that same time, 11 of those children were arrested for possessing a firearm. The twelfth died by homicide and had had a stolen gun on him when he was admitted to the hospital after getting shot.

Eleven of the minors had 55 or more disciplinary incidents within their schools, Spagnolo said.

“All 12 of these kids accounted for 84 of the vehicles that were stolen inside of the city of Waterbury throughout the calendar year 2020. And they’ve been arrested for that,” Spagnolo said.

Over that same time, Waterbury police responded to calls for service an average of 30 times for each child, Spagnolo said. Those are calls placed when someone is in a crisis, like when an individual is a victim of a crime, in a medical emergency or had been in an accident. 

“The outcomes really aren’t good for this group,” Spagnolo said, outlining the trajectories of their lives. One is dead. Five are now adults incarcerated in prison on serious charges. Of the six who are still minors, three are in juvenile detention centers. A few days ago, several of the minors still in the community were involved in a “stolen vehicle incident” in Naugatuck, Spagnolo said.

“We can certainly do better when it comes to arresting juveniles, we can certainly do better in diverting arrests, especially for minor misdemeanor offenses,” Spagnolo said. “But our major concern right now is the harm to this small percentage of juveniles in our community that we can’t get our hands around.”

Spagnolo acknowledged that advocates don’t see detention as a solution to helping young people with serious needs who keep winding up in the justice system. But he’s at a loss as to what to do with the children he and his officers cannot connect with. He called their current efforts “a complete and total failure. They’re losing their lives. And they’re putting not only themselves, but our community, at risk.”

Advocates on the committee noted that it is not police officers’ job to provide all the services that children from under-resourced communities need.

“We talk a lot, at the Alliance and with other police officers, too, about the over-reliance on police,” said Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance. “So I think I think it would behoove all of us to be at the same table, as you are here, to talk about solutions.”

Those solutions for “high-risk, high-need youth,” Quaranta suggested, could include 24/7 Youth Advocate Programs that exist in 29 states but not Connecticut.

“I think we need to start really branching out and changing what we’re doing if we’re going to expect to have positive outcomes that kids and families deserve,” said Quaranta.

Kelan is a Report For America Corps Member who covers the intersection of mental health and criminal justice for CT Mirror. Before joining CT Mirror, Kelan was a staff writer for City Weekly, an alt weekly in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a courts reporter for The Bryan-College Station Eagle, in Texas. He is originally from Philadelphia.

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